Do council communication teams really understand community engagement?

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A recent LGinsight event on improving community engagement has revealed a divide in opinion among delegates on what community engagement really is.

For some attendees community engagement is a one-sided affair. The local authority ‘consults’ with the community; ’we set the agenda and you give us feedback’. This paternalistic approach turns community engagement into an afterthought for validating policies rather than meeting the needs or expectations of the community. Rhion Jones of The Consultation Institute, during his exuberant presentation, commented: “Too many consultations are obvious attempts to okay a decision already made”. Unfortunately, some councils claim that this approach is not only consultation but also community engagement. Even when directly challenged they hold steadfast to the belief that giving information and asking for comments is engagement when really it is just “simply facilitating communication between service providers and citizens in a neighbourhood”[1]. For the record, consultation is a two-way discussion to share advice and opinion, and engagement is when you do this well.

Engaging with people is a minefield. The supposedly ‘golden tools’ for local authorities of sending out a questionnaire to stakeholders and putting something on the website does not equal good consultation, let alone engagement. This is especially true when you have devised, delivered and evaluated the consultation yourself. Neither does the rush to embrace social media tick all of your engagement boxes. Whichever tool you use, you are unlikely to fully engage all of your audience but that does not mean you should stick to the same lame ‘consultation’ approaches. Fewer diktats from central government under the espoused autonomy of the Localism agenda should enable local authorities to be more innovative in improving community engagement through creative consultation practices. Thankfully, many local authorities already do recognise that genuine community engagement and consultation are the foundation for engendering trust, improving working practices and enabling co-produced local decision-making.

For the more enlightened, the basic tenet is simply: Tell us what you think and we will work with you to achieve that. “What?! Go out into the community and ask them what we should do as a local authority?” I hear you cry. Yep. That’s it. It’s not rocket science, there are no special tricks, and it doesn’t even have to incur additional costs. Just go out and ask.

Use the brilliant exemplars seen in the LGinsight workshop from your colleagues in other areas. As part of their ‘Let’s Talk’[2] initiative Harrow Council set up a pop-up sitting room on their high streets where local councillors and officers talked with people about the council’s three year vision and priorities. A publicity campaign and other outreach events resulted in 800 conversations, 2,000 surveys completed and the council experiencing a rise from 29% to 43% in residents feeling involved in decision making. More importantly Harrow thanked their respondents publicly and in a timely manner. This simple and highly effective move is often neglected by local authorities who merely focus on gathering the crunchy numbers for auditors.

Harrow, Norfolk, and Lambeth provided inspiring and valuable case study presentations on how to effectively reach out to the community. Don’t expect the community to come to you, because you already know you’ll just attract the usual suspects who always attend citizens’ panels, fora, committee meetings and the like. Constantly re-engaging the already ‘active citizen’ is a tick box cop out, as is using ‘hard to reach’ as an excuse. Does the community really contain people who are hard to reach or is it because we can’t be bothered to expend the shoe leather and extend our reach into their communities? When turnout or response is low we tend to place blame on community ‘apathy’ that is probably of our own making.

Research by Keep Britain Tidy[3] highlighted that we don’t fully understand how different communities respond to matters of concern in their neighbourhood. We should not use one ‘catch all’ method for gauging community opinion. Keep Britain Tidy found that in less deprived areas the community will often immediately contact the local authority to report or respond to concerns. In deprived areas communities tend to ruminate on issues between themselves for quite some time and only contact the local authority at crisis point when immediate responses are required. Unfortunately, this will reveal just the tip of an immense iceberg of their concerns. Clearly, different audiences require different methods of communication, consultation and engagement.

So, in essence, this is a call to arms for public sector communication teams: use the emancipation afforded by the Localism agenda to your advantage. Be daring, take risks, go out and get your hands dirty, and use your most innovative skills and deep imagination to really engage with your local communities to build open and honest consultation avenues. Don’t forget to communicate with other colleagues across the whole sector and also share your achievements more widely for others to learn from.

Remember: Communication teams hold the key to genuine community engagement

Just one opinion from an ex-public sector employee turned volunteer community development practitioner and rural social exclusion researcher - Fen Kipley, Rural Community Engagement - Researcher ESRC CASE PhD Studentship


[1] ODPM/Home Office, Citizen Engagement and Public Services: Why Neighbourhoods Matter, 2005, p.13

[2] See http://www.harrow.gov.uk/letstalk for more information

[3] See ‘Whose reality is it anyway?’ Perceptions of Place project - details available via http://www.keepbritaintidy.org

To view presentations from the event - please see the event page

Posted on 13th September 2011